Otuafi cousins mix Polynesian way of life with basketball
February 22, 2018
On paper, they're cousins.
But to their family, they're sisters.
Motulalo and Marvin Otuafi grew up in Fernley and then attended McQueen, with Motulalo going off to college and then coming to Fallon while Marvin went into construction. Their fathers were brothers, making them first cousins but they don't see it that way.
"When you're related, I would introduce him as my brother. When you're related, that means you're a brother or sister," said Motulalo, who goes by Lalo and was born in Vava'u, Tonga, an island group in Polynesia. "Family is everything."
“Our families are very close. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done together. They’ve been together in everything. To be able to see them play – we’ve seen them in Jam On It – and to see them go through high school together, that’s just a bonus. That’s just awesome.”Motulalo “Lalo” Otuafi
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Their daughters have known each other since they were in diapers and grew closer to each other with each passing year. It's not difficult to confuse Lelaini and Leta as sisters. They're the same age, although Leilani is nearly a year older. They play basketball together and are two of the reasons for the Lady Wave's success since they stepped onto the court three seasons ago.
"We grew up with each other. We're sisters," said Leta, whose father, Marvin, was born in Hawaii. "We're Polynesian and we're all family. Everyone's really close. Everybody's just family. You treat them with love and respect."
That bond got stronger once the Otuafi girls joined Jam On It and played basketball throughout the year in addition to playing on Anne Smith's Greenwave. It's one of the family's many mottos about doing things together.
"Our families are very close. Everything we've done, we've done together," Lalo said. "They've been together in everything. To be able to see them play – we've seen them in Jam On It – and to see them go through high school together, that's just a bonus. That's just awesome."
From learning about the family's culture and applying those lessons to life, especially basketball, both Leta and Leilani have been impactful.
INTRODUCING CULTURE TO BASKETBALL
When Fallon traveled to California for the holiday tournament in December, Anne Smith noticed the Otuafis break from the group.
The Fallon coach spotted both Leilani and Leta conversing with a Polynesian group they hadn't met. Because of their culture and the family-first aspect, regardless if they've met, they're all considered family. It was like they've known each other for years.
"I've never seen anything like it in my life," Smith said. "It's really neat. Every time we go somewhere, there's someone there who supports them."
And Smith has seen the Otuafis' passion and care for their own family affect her team. Everyone's treated as sisters, making the team bond even closer.
"They do add that idea of a family-type atmosphere," Smith said. "Sometimes when you watch (Leilani and Leta), it seems like they're all family because of how sisters treat one another."
The Otuafis aren't on the team just for show and to bring the team together like family. They're two of the best players in the 3A and helped Fallon knock off several 4A teams, including McQueen, which advanced to this week's state tournament.
"We've always known we've had potential," said Leta, whose younger brother, Sione, competes in football and wrestling. "We didn't know how to use our ability (two years ago). Now, we know what we can do and what feels right for us. Now, we feel like we're at our best."
But it wasn't always that way.
Before Fallon, both joined Jam On It and admitted that it was a rough start.
"It was definitely a long, hard road. We were not as good," Leta said. "We had the opportunity to find a good program like Jam On It and to play with each other was even better because we were able to push each other. Even though the journey to where we are now was hard, I'm so grateful. I'm proud of how far we've come."
Lalo recalled their first encounter with the program when Sharice Green, their coach, talked to his wife and sister-in-law. It started as giving the girls something to do during the winter break but it has blossomed into another success story, like Gabby Williams, a senior at UConn and one of the best players in the country.
"Gabby was playing in high school when the girls started," Lalo said. "They got to see how awesome she was. They got to see a lot of the girls. Our family, when it comes to athletics and being out there and active, we just go crazy. They've been hungry and it's go, go, go."
With the Greenwave going for its second state title this weekend in Reno, it shows how far the Otuafis have come since picking up a basketball for the first time. Coupled with their humble and caring attitudes, it has helped bring Fallon closer and better as it goes for another title.
"With the Otuafi cousins, they have brought the team closer," Fallon senior Caitlyn Welch. "Everyone treats each other like sisters. They have showed us that just being close as a family helps us achieve more as a team."
And there's no doubt Fallon has. They bring a new meaning to family and it's helped bonded the team closer, treating each as if they're related by blood.
"On the court, that's why our team is so family oriented because we have that feeling that we respect each other and love each other. We treat everyone as family," Leta said.
LEARNING THE POLYNESIAN WAY OF LIFE
Like their ancestors before them, family is at the center of the Otuafis.
It's one of the first things Leilani remembers growing up and learning about her family's heritage. Putting others before yourself and understanding the importance of religion have shaped her and Leta into respected and caring individuals, both on and off the court.
"We grew up with it. Church is the biggest thing," said Leilani, who has a younger sister, Nola. "We're one big family."
And big is understatement.
Her father, Lalo, can't put a number on the size of their family but they come from all over. Families from Utah and Arizona greeted them last year in Las Vegas when Fallon won the state title. One of their families from Utah met them in Elko last week for the regional tournament.
"When people are asking how big your family, it's too many to count. That's how you answer," Lalo said. "It's hard for me to give a number. We have family coming from Utah who hasn't been to any of the games all year long. They want to fly over and be supportive."
Lalo was born in Vava'u, Tonga, but moved two years later to Hawaii before growing up in Fernley. He went to high school at McQueen, then to college before serving a two-year mission and finishing college in South Dakota, where Leilani was born.
"My dad drove here to Fallon for a church meeting and we went through Fernley," Lalo recalled. "My dad didn't want us to grow up in Reno. He didn't want us to live in a city. He wanted us to grow up in a small town. Our parents bought house in Fernley and we grew up there."
After Leilani was born, the Otuafis moved to Fallon.
"We've always been growing in Fernley and had a lot of connections in Fallon," said Lalo whose brother, Afa, was a probation officer in Fernley. "When I moved here to Fallon, it was basically coming back home. We had so many friends here that I grew up with."
Although Lalo hasn't been back to Tonga – the furthest his family has been back was New Zealand – his parents visited Tonga for the first time in more than 30 years. His wife's parents went back last December and although things have changed, the core, the foundation of culture is as strong as it's ever been.
"It's always been about God and country. That's what my in-laws talk about when they go back," he said. "To see how that has continued, it has been humbling to my family."
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Lalo loves coaching.
Bus Scharmann contacted Lalo, who works in the juvenile probation department, 15 years ago and asked to help coach high school football.
His tall stature is hard to miss on the sidelines before every football game and has enjoyed the successes of the players he helped get to that next level, both on and off the field.
When Leilani walked onto campus, though, a new wave of emotions engulfed him.
"I've always loved coaching and the kids I coached, I want them to be successful and work hard," he said. "Being able to see that it has always been with someone else's kid and their joy and success. Now that I get to see my own kid go out, play and be a part of something she loves, is a blessing and awesome for me."
Since watching his daughter – and Leta – play for the Greenwave for the first time, he and the rest of the family have been dreading their final season. Both are attracting attention from Division I schools and while there's an inkling to have them stay close to home and play at Nevada, Lalo and Leilani have discussed the future.
"Dad, would you let me go across the country?" Lalo recalled. "I said sweetheart, 'I went to South Dakota to get my education.' When we moved here in 2002, we finally got to go back there this summer to see it. We drove there. They got to experience that long drive. I told her I want you to give every school an opportunity. If it's across the country and at the end of the day, everyone will support her wherever she goes."
But for now, they're having fun living in the moment as Fallon goes for another state
It's no secret that the Leilani and Leta have contributed greatly to Fallon's success during the last three years. The Lady Wave has won two regional titles and will go for the second state crown this weekend in Reno.
But more importantly, the Otuafi cousins have impacted and influenced their teammates and coach on and off the court. The center of their universe – family – has not only shaped them into caring and humble people but it's also played a big role in how they treat their team.
Leilani and Leta aren't just cousins. They're sisters.